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Norman Lear, Prolific Producer Who Revolutionized Television, Dies at 101

The All in the Family creator left a lasting mark by infusing his sitcoms with social and political commentary.
  • Norman Lear in 2019 (Photo: Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)
    Norman Lear in 2019 (Photo: Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)

    Prolific television producer Norman Lear has died at the age of 101. Lear, who forever changed TV by infusing his sitcoms with social and political commentary, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, a spokesperson for his family confirmed early Wednesday.

    Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1922, Lear fought in World War II before moving to Los Angeles, where he began a career as a comedy writer. He worked steadily throughout the 1950s and '60s, writing for variety shows and producing specials, but his big break came later in the decade, when he and producing partner Bud Yorkin began developing a pilot about a narrow-minded bigot named Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O'Connor) and his family.

    In a now-infamous mistake, ABC passed on the sitcom, believing Archie's persona to be too controversial for its mainstream viewers. Sensing an opening, CBS pounced, and All in the Family, the first U.S. sitcom to be filmed in front of a live studio audience, went on to become a sensation upon its premiere in 1971.

    All in the Family won 22 Emmys over its nine-season run and spawned various sitcoms, but its legacy remains far greater than these metrics. Despite ABC's concerns, the sitcom proved that American audiences wanted to see thorny, topical stories presented on-screen; the show's social and political debates didn't push viewers away, but kept them coming back, week after week.

    Lear heard that message loud and clear, and in the years that followed, timely commentary infused with family drama and situational comedy became his signature style. His shows introduced characters or storylines that were often ignored by mainstream television at the time, including Maude, a liberated woman (played by Bea Arthur) in an unhappy marriage who dealt with issues like abortion head-on; The Jeffersons, a Black family navigating their newfound wealth in Manhattan; and One Day at a Time, starring Bonnie Franklin as a single mother who moved to Los Angeles with her daughters.

    As Aaron Barnhart wrote for Primetimer last year, on the occasion of Lear's 100th birthday, these shows "all featured top-notch writing, seasoned performers in the leading roles, lively studio audiences — often warmed up by Lear himself — and a measured boldness in taking on the issues that were roiling America."

    In the decades that followed, Lear remained an outspoken political presence, founding People for the American Way, an advocacy group that positioned itself against the conservative Moral Majority (and people like Archie Bunker), and donating to progressive causes. He was inducted into the Television Academy's Hall of Fame in 1984, won various lifetime achievement awards, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1999.

    More recently, Lear partnered with Jimmy Kimmel on a series of live tapings of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Facts of Life, and Diff'rent Strokes, with stars including Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx playing his iconic characters. Two of these specials, Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons' (2019) and 'All in the Family' and 'Good Times' (2020), won Emmys, making Lear the oldest winner in the history of the Television Academy (in 2020, at age 98, he broke the record he previously set in 2019 at age 97).

    In a statement, Lear's family thanked his fans for supporting the writer and producer throughout his historic career. "Norman lived a life of creativity, tenacity, and empathy. He deeply loved our country and spent a lifetime helping to preserve its founding ideals of justice and equality for all," it reads. "Knowing and loving him has been the greatest of gifts. We ask for your understanding as we mourn privately in celebration of this remarkable human being."

    CBS issued this statement on Lear's passing:

    Norman Lear’s profound influence on television will never be forgotten. He was a creative icon whose comedic and courageous perspective on the America he loved had an immeasurable impact on our network, our viewers and television overall.

    His funny, realistic and fearless approach to storytelling rang true in his sharp writing and rich characters. He redefined the sitcom by introducing topics that had previously been avoided, including race, poverty and sexism. And he did it all with wit and heart, making it relatable to millions of Americans.

    Norman’s broad impact on our industry is surpassed only by his personal influence on the lives of the innumerable people he touched at every level of our business. He also remained a passionate advocate for equality and justice throughout his remarkable life.

    We extend our deepest condolences to Norman’s beloved family. His legacy will forever touch the medium we all love.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Norman Lear, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude